Science & Technology


Is approaching immortality immoral?


I'm speaking later this week at the World Transhumanist Association's annual meeting, Transvision 2004. Below is a short version of my remarks.

What if a biomedical researcher discovered that lives were being cut short because every human being was infected in the womb by a disease organism that eventually wears down the human immune system's ability to protect us? Until that discovery, the "natural" average lifespan was the proverbial three score and ten years.

Once the discovery is made, another brilliant researcher devises a "vaccine" that kills off the disease organism. Suddenly the average lifespan doubles to seven score (140 years). In a sense, this is exactly where we find ourselves today. There are no "vaccines" yet to cure the disease of aging. But biomedical researchers understand more with each passing year about the processes that cause the increasing physical and mental debilities that we define as aging. Aging is no more or less "natural" than cholera, smallpox, diabetes, arteriosclerosis, or any disease that cuts short human lives.

Nevertheless, a number of prominent bioethicists and other policy intellectuals are arguing that we should oppose any such life-doubling "vaccine" on the grounds that it would interfere with the "natural" course of human life.

For example, in the current issue of the journal Gerontology, bioethicist Daniel Callahan claims in a debate with Gregory Stock that doubling human lifespans would be a net negative for individuals and society.

Callahan makes three arguments. First, he points out that the "problems of war, poverty, environment, job creation, and social and familial violence" would not "be solved by everyone living a much longer life." Second, he asserts that longer lives will lead mostly to more golf games, not new social energy. "I don't believe that if you give most people longer lives, even in better health, they are going to find new opportunities and new initiatives," Callahan writes.

And thirdly, Callahan is worried about what longer lives would do to child bearing and rearing, Social Security and Medicare. He demands that "each one of the problems I mentioned has to be solved in advance. The dumbest thing for us to do would be to wander into this new world and say, 'We'll deal with the problems as they come along.'"

Callahan's first argument is a non sequitur. People already engage in lots of activities that do not aim directly at "solving" war, poverty, environmental problems, job creation, and the rest. Surely we can't stop everything until we've ended war, poverty, and familial violence. Anti-aging biomedical research wouldn't obviously exacerbate any of the problems listed by Callahan and might actually moderate some of them. If people knew that they were likely to enjoy many more healthy years, they might be more inclined to longer-term thinking aimed at remedying some of those problems.

Second, Callahan's "longer life equals more golf" argument is not only condescending, it ignores the ravages that physical decline visits on people. Callahan, age 73, sees a lack of "new energy" among his confreres. Even if people are healthy at age 75, their "energy" levels will be lower than at age 30. They may not begin "new initiatives" because they can't expect to live to see them come to fruition.

But diminishing physical energy isn't the only problem; there is also waning psychic energy. "There's a factor that has nothing to do with physical energy. That is the boredom and repetition of life," he argues. "I ran an organization for 27 years. I didn't get physically tired. I just got bored doing the same thing repetitiously."

It doesn't seem reasonable to conclude that, just because Callahan is bored with life, we all will become so. Modern material and intellectual abundance is offering a way out of the lives of quiet desperation suffered by our impoverished ancestors. The 21st century will offer an ever-increasing menu of life plans and choices. Surely exhausting the coming possibilities will take more than one standard lifetime. Besides, if you do want to play endless games of golf and can afford it, why is that immoral? And if you become bored with life and golf, well, no one is making you hang around.

Doubling healthy human life expectancy would create some novel social problems, to be sure, but would they really be so hard to deal with? Callahan cites the hoary example of brain-dead old professors blocking the progress of vibrant young researchers by grimly holding onto tenure. That seems more of a problem for medieval holdovers like universities than for modern social institutions like corporations.

Assuming it turns out that, even with healthy long-lived oldsters, there is an advantage in turnover in top management, then corporations that adopt that model will thrive and those that do not will be outcompeted. Besides, even today youngsters don't simply wait around for their elders to die. They go out and found their own companies and other institutions. Bill Gates didn't wait to take over IBM; he founded Microsoft at age 20. Nor did human genome sequencer Craig Venter loiter about until the top slot at the National Institutes of Health opened up. And in politics, we already solve the problem of clutching oldsters by term-limiting the presidency, as well as many state and local offices.

Callahan's failure of imagination when it comes to public policy conundrums like Social Security and Medicare is breathtaking. Folks will be chronologically older, but not elderly in the current sense. Thus, the standard age when those payoffs begin will obviously have to rise, as the healthy aging will be expected to continue to be productive and support themselves. Assuming that age-retardation is possible, the many illnesses and debilities that accompany aging will be postponed. If one is going to live to be 140, one has a lot of time to plan and save for the future.

And his assumption of a child crisis in a world of long-lived people seems based on the idea that healthy oldsters would be less interested in reproducing. A first response might be: so what? Shouldn't the decision to have children be up to individuals? After all, already countries with the highest life expectancies have the lowest levels of fertility.

This lack of interest in progeny would have the happy side effect of making sure that doubling human lifespans doesn't lead to overpopulation. No one can know for sure, but it could well be that bearing and rearing children would eventually interest long-lived oldsters who would come to feel that they had the time and the resources to do it right.

Callahan's final demand that all problems that doubled healthy lifespans might cause be solved in advance is just silly. Humanity did not solve all of the problems caused by the introduction of farming, electricity, automobiles, antibiotics, sanitation, and computers in advance. We proceeded by trial and error and corrected problems as they arose. We should be allowed do the same thing with any new age-retardation techniques that biomedical research may develop. And we'll be happy to do so.

Heads up: I will be reporting on the goings on at Transvision 2004 in my next column.